9 – Children of the Sea
Drizzle hissed to steam as it hit Calis’ body and a cloud of mist clung to him like guilt. His skin burned with shame and a hollow pain wrenched his heart, twisting and tearing. Night shrouded the forest. Wind shook the trees around him but Calis relished the cold. Enjoyed it. He’d felt this way ever since the night air had first brushed his face and goose bumps had pimpled his flesh. It reminded him he existed.
“It’s not real.” Alex shook his head. “You don’t feel this. It’s the soul bond.”
Calis gritted his teeth. Alex had no right to say that. How dare he take the only thing Calis was sure of and rip it apart word by word? Fire raced through Calis’ blood. Forget about Alex. Calis’ love was real, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. Perhaps Alex wasn’t worth it.
“Go!” Alex shouted. “Get out!”
Tears streaked his face and his eyes bled with anguish.
Calis drove his fist into a tree with a growl and the wood splintered where he’d struck. A fleck of pain. Blood welled from Calis’ knuckles but he didn’t care. Fire was what he was born with and without Alex, it was the only thing he had. Calis would burn.
Magic stormed to the surface of his skin, his soul, and lines of smoke poured from his fingers against the bark. Damp with rain.
Calis could change that.
He could destroy.
Then his rage fled him and all he could do was curl against the tree, his forehead against the trunk. This anger inside him, this rage, he didn’t want to feel it. He was more than the fire he was born with.
Rain wet Calis’ skin and water traced his face, mingling with the tears in his eyes. Move. Incubus or not, he did not want to stay out in the rain, but who else did he know? Calis doubted Melody would house him, and he barely knew Nathan.
Waves crashed against the bluff Kari’s house stood on, the horizon grey, and the sky painted the whitewashed brick in dreary shade. Warm light flickered from the windows, at odds with the rain drumming against the roof.
Behind the house, pale sunlight filtered the storm, the first hints of dawn. Was it morning already? He’d lost track of how many hours he’d spent wandering through town before finally drifting to the forest.
This was where Calis had chased Alex all those weeks ago, right after he was born. He felt stupid for not noticing the eldritch geometry of the house back then, and the thought of Hana sent a shiver down his spine. Naggareth, primordial goddess of fertility and life. Naggareth, wearing a human face in a suburban English town. Kari, whom Calis suspected was a goddess in her own right.
Calis knocked anyway.
Kari opened the door still dressed in her school uniform, although she’d taken her shoes off. She blinked once then stepped aside with a wordless gesture. Calis slipped inside. Kari shut the door
“Take your shoes off and dry yourself,” she said.
Calis was about to ask for a towel when he realised she meant magic.
“Alex doesn’t want me to—”
Calis clamped his mouth shut before he could finish the sentence. Alex wasn’t here.
Calis’ magic swelled and a cloud of steam puffed from him as the rainwater evaporated. Energy fizzed along his skin and he should have felt powerful, should have felt free, but his heart was cold. Calis set his shoes by the door.
Kari led him into the kitchen, her footsteps silent. “Alex knows you love him.”
“Yeah.” Calis sat and stared at the table. He swallowed around the lump in his throat. “It… didn’t go well.”
Kari stared at him for a bit too long, her brow slightly creased, then her eyes widened. “Obviously.”
With a burst of movement Kari switched the kettle on and reached for the top shelf. Her form flickered—no, teleported—and she set down three mugs on the counter. Bubble tea. Of course.
“Have you seen the way he handles homework?” Kari said. “Alex is terrible at anything mundane.”
“So love is mundane?” A small smile.
“It’s simple,” Kari said. A pause. “Simple for you.”
Calis bit his lip to stop himself from asking what Kari meant. Love was many things, but none of those things was ‘simple’. If Calis could switch off this part of him, he would do so with vigour.
The kettle boiled and Kari made three cups of tea, but only added tapioca pearls to two of them. She poured one into the wicker basket in the corner and placed the other two on the table. The tea before Calis was plain.
“You don’t like sweet things,” Kari said. There was a hesitation to her words, though, a question.
Calis wrapped his hands around the mug with a smile. “Thank you.”
Kari’s eyes lit up and she sat down across from him. Her chair scraped as she dragged it in.
“I told you if you hurt Alex he’d be sad,” Kari said.
“It’s not my fault.” Calis’ lip curled. He didn’t do anything.
“I know.” Kari took a gulp of tea. “I… should have realised he could hurt you, too.”
Warmth flooded Calis’ stomach and tears pricked at his eyes all over again. He was hurt. It was so simple when put that way.
“I think he likes you too,” Kari said.
“Oh, I know he likes me.” Calis could feel it through the soul-bond. “It doesn’t matter, though. He doesn’t want me.”
Kari frowned. “That doesn’t sound like it doesn’t matter.”
Sunlight filtered in through the window, the cold white of early morning. Alex would still be in bed.
Calis closed his eyes with a sigh. “I just… I don’t want to love him anymore. I don’t want him to want me.”
Alex made his choice, and Calis had to accept that. He had to move past it.
“Uh…” Kari bit her lip. “You could… Just…” She flicked her head towards the door. “Mother! Calis is having human problems.”
A tendril poked around the kitchen door, a mouth stuck onto an amorphous mass of shadow.
“Oh dear.” A green eye split open above the mouth. “Did you give him tea?”
“A hug?” Hana said.
“Oh, no.” Kari’s eyes widened. “I forgot the hug.”
Calis scratched the back of his head. “You don’t have to.” He wasn’t quite sure what was happening.
“I’ve been learning how to give emotional support.” Kari’s eyes were firm. “Hugs are good for your brain chemistry.”
Calis’ eyes flicked to Hana’s tendril and he shuffled in his seat. “Don’t worry about it—”
Kari didn’t listen to his protests. She stepped around the table and wrapped her arms around him from the back.
“Are you comforted?” Kari’s voice was quiet.
Kari’s hug was stiff and she wasn’t quite touching Calis, her size and the angle conspiring against her. Where Kari’s brushed him her touch was warm, though, and she smelled faintly of flowers.
Kari, outer god of hell knew what, was hugging him.
Calis’ lip trembled and he bit his lip to stop himself bursting into tears. “I am very comforted.”
“Good.” Kari broke apart with a smile.
“That’s better, isn’t it?” Hana’s tendril swept into the kitchen and her body followed, five limbs attached to her torso. One hand ruffled Kari’s hair and two more patted Calis’ cheeks.
“Sweetie, I know how difficult human emotions can be, but they’re such beautiful things.” Hana pulled a chair back. “You have to—”
“Mother?” Kari blinked.
“Calis, did you bring that flower in?” Hana said.
“Flower?” Calis rubbed his eyes and—there, on the table before him. A crimson flower with curling petals and stamens like tendrils. A red spider lily.
“Higanbana,” Kari said. “Where did you find it?”
Calis frowned. “I didn’t.”
Hana snatched the lily and tucked it into the folds of her clothes. “I must have left it lying around.” Her grin was almost as large as her face.
A clap of thunder shook the house and a dread something cut through the air. Calis flinched, his whole body shuddering, and Kari shot up in her seat.
“What was that?” Calis’ heart hammered in his chest.
Kari teleported over to the kitchen window and scowled. “The ocean creatures.”
Calis joined Kari with his breath held and fire humming through his veins. Droplets of rain obscured the glass but he could make out the bluff’s sheer drop on the other side of the window, the ocean a mass of white spray at the bottom. Through the water: bulging, sinewy shapes. Hundreds of them.
“Shit.” Calis clenched his fist. Alex.
“Indeed.” Hana gripped the table with white knuckles. “Kari, would you be able to handle this? It’s about time you learned to deal with family.”
“Family?” Calis blanched. There was another eldritch god out there? Coming to Rilhey? To where Alex was?
“I won the war against the penguins.” Kari clenched her fist. “I can do this.”
Kari ploughed towards the front door, her jaw locked in determination. Calis’ heartbeat calmed a little. Kari lived on the outskirts of Rilhey; it would be a while before those creatures reached the town centre.
“Calis?” Hana gripped his shoulder. “Look after my daughter. Look after Alex.”
Calis was about to quip about it being the other way around when he saw the expression on Hana’s face. A primordial goddess, who almost looked afraid.
“I will.” Calis gulped. What else could he say?
Alex’s arms shook as he put the weight back on the stand and his breath came in spurts. Holy shit, people actually went to the gym for fun? Sweat flushed his skin and his muscles could barely hold up his skeleton, a quivering mass of jelly. Alex was so out of shape. Perhaps following Nathan in his routine hadn’t been such a good idea, especially not this early in the morning.
The weight Alex had put back slipped and he darted to catch it. His hand hit the metal hard but he managed to grab onto the weight’s edge before it fell. His fingers trembled.
“Nice catch.” Nathan grinned.
“Thanks.” Alex refused to look at Nathan, instead fixing his gaze on the floor. Some kind of faux-granite lino, or whatever the correct term was. The entire gym was decorated like an up-market school’s cafeteria, so full of motivational posters Alex might actually scream.
Nathan’s legs didn’t leave Alex’s field of vision. “You okay, mate? That was the last of your reps.”
Alex ran a hand through his hair and a bead of sweat dripped down his face. It splashed on the floor. “I’m fine.”
Nathan was straight; Alex was fine. Calis loved Alex; Alex was fine.
Calis was gone.
Alex was fine.
“Even my baby sister can lie better than that.” Nathan’s voice was gentle. “Did something happen with Calis?”
Alex’s head shot up. “How—”
“It was either him or Kari, and Kari doesn’t seem like the dramatic type,” Nathan said.
Nathan had changed, or perhaps Alex’s vision of him had changed. He was still good-looking, but in a flawed way with acne scars and asymmetry. Human.
“We had a fight,” Alex admitted. It sounded less selfish that way, as if it wasn’t Alex who had kicked Calis out into the night. His mouth tasted like ash.
“Friends fight all the time.” Nathan walked into the changing rooms and Alex followed him. “One time Aron kept stealing all my food so I punched him. Didn’t talk to me for a week, then the new Pokémon game came out and we were fine.”
Alex quirked his eyebrow.
“I was nine.” Nathan threw his towel over his shoulder. “Point is, we’re all human. We all mess up.”
Alex disguised the wince on his face by filling up his water bottle. The gym was quiet this early on a Saturday, which was just as well. Alex didn’t think he could handle the general public right now.
“So you’re telling me things will get better?” Alex gulped down half his water.
“Of course,” Nathan said. “I’ve never seen you angry, not even when you lose. You’re not cut out for fights.”
“Hey.” Alex frowned. He wasn’t sure how he felt, hearing those words from Nathan. That version of himself, it wasn’t true.
Nathan pushed open the door to a shower cubicle with his foot. “Meet you in the lobby?”
Alex headed into a cubicle the opposite end from Nathan. He stripped his clothes off and stood under the shower for a long time, the water biting into his skin. Fever hot. Alex glared at his body: skin pink with exertion, hints of muscle swamped by baby fat. No one would find this attractive, let alone love it.
It was just that. Nothing more.
A furious rain thundered outside when Alex reached the lobby and for a moment he thought he was still in the shower. Electric lights illuminated walls plastered in posters of people so ridiculously athletic they wouldn’t be caught dead in Rilhey, and a staff member clicked idly on a computer. Windows looked out on a sky so dark it seemed almost night, a mess of roiling clouds and grey linings.
Nathan was texting furiously on his phone, then grimaced. “Damn.”
“What is it?” Alex said. He could smell Nathan’s shampoo, something citrusy.
“Mum can’t pick me up.” Nathan grinned ruefully. “I don’t suppose you have an umbrella, do you?”
“You can borrow my raincoat if you want.” Alex fished it out of his bag. He’d been caught in the rain too often to trust English weather.
“What about you?” Nathan said.
Alex shrugged. “I’ll be alright.” Who knows, maybe he deserved to be soaked to his core. Out of the shower, into the rain. It couldn’t hurt any more than he already did.
A frown. “Are you sure?”
“Just take it.” Alex pressed the coat at Nathan with a roll of his eyes.
Nathan struggled into Alex’s raincoat. It didn’t quite fit him, riding up his arms and torso, but at least it covered his head.
“You ready?” Nathan said.
Alex nodded. “Let’s go.”
He was glad Calis wouldn’t be at home. Calis would have berated him for being so reckless with his health. A bitter smile rose to Alex’s lips.
The doors slid open. A step and the rain hit Alex like a train, a fist of water. Soaked to his skin, his bones, in an instant. A shudder ran down his spine.
“You okay?” Nathan glanced at him.
“I’m fine.” Alex locked his jaw and stuffed his hands into his pockets. Wet. Shivering. It wasn’t so bad.
The drains had overflowed and the gutters were half-flooded. Alex’s trainers were dripping in seconds. Cars splashed down the roads and the few people that were out rushed along with their hoods held down against the rain. A foul stench clogged the air and Alex hopped around an eddy of rubbish floating by a drain.
“I wonder what this storm is called?” Nathan said.
Alex shrugged. “I didn’t hear anything on the news.”
Nathan breathed into his hands and rubbed them together. “It’s really cold for November, though. Weird.”
“Yeah.” Alex frowned. Penguins and an impossible fridge reared in his head.
A clap of thunder. The sound rumbled through the air and clawed at Alex’s head, twisting, and his stomach dropped. He tasted fish and seaweed in the air.
“Let’s hurry home.” Alex struggled to keep his voice steady. Calis wasn’t here. Calis was out on his own, but he knew how to take care of himself. Right?
“You don’t need to tell me twice.” Nathan powered on, his arms wrapped tightly around himself.
A shadow up ahead.
Alex grabbed Nathan’s arm and yanked him back. “What…” He swallowed. “What is that?”
The shadow hunched in the middle of the street, its back humped and its arms trailing down to the floor. Murky daylight glinted off rubbery skin and scales cascading with rainwater.
A flash of lightning and Nathan flinched backwards. “Oh my god.”
Alex’s blood turned to ice.
Green-grey skin, webbed digits and bulbous eyes, affixed to a head more fish than human. Fear stabbed into Alex’s heart, sharp as a ritual knife, and he moved in front of Nathan.
Shit! What had Melody told him? Nunc… Nunc te…
The creature lurched a step forward.
Nathan’s face was a mask of horror.
“Nunc te intellego. De chaos venisti, ut chaos revertus!” Alex shouted.
The fish creature screamed at him, a sound halfway between a howl and a gargle. Not an abomination, not quite.
Alex’s fingers dug into Nathan’s arm. “Run.”
Alex tore back up the street, his heart rattling in his chest. Panic sliced through his exhaustion. Calis. Where was Calis? And Kari, and Melody? It was daytime. It should have been daytime; abominations didn’t come out until night.
Screams bounced through the town centre and a car alarm pealed through the storm, scratching at Alex’s eardrums. Nathan pushed ahead of Alex, his legs longer, then he skidded to a halt with his arm outstretched.
Two more fish creatures shambled round the corner. They screeched when they saw Alex and Nathan, and charged.
Without giving himself time to think, Alex ducked and drove his foot into one’s gut. His heel collided with solid flesh in a wet flump and the creature tottered backwards. The other creature lunged. Nathan yanked Alex out of the way by the back of his collar and a webbed claw scraped the air inches from his face.
“What the fuck?” Nathan tugged at his hair, his eyes frantic. “What the actual fuck?”
Alex glanced behind them. Fish person: closing in fast. His heart skipped a beat.
They were surrounded.